When exploring the subject of stress and how to reduce, release, and manage it, it is essential to take some time to understand a little about stress. First, we must understand that stress is not something outside of ourselves. Stress is our reaction to change. That is why two people can go through exactly the same event but have completely different responses. This is a very important point, because if stress is our reaction to an event, we can work on changing it; whereas if stress were a random event outside of ourselves, we would be at its mercy.
For example, though work may become easier through technological innovation, stress is not necessarily eliminated. Stress is an internal response to external change, and such change is a fact of life and therefore cannot be eliminated regardless of the modernization of society. Some might also argue that the accelerating rate of technological change in recent years has triggered greater stressful reactions. Such generalizations are difficult to prove, but by developing a greater awareness of stress as our own reaction to change, we can develop techniques to help us alter our perception of stressful factors outside of ourselves in an ever-changing world.
But not all stress is bad or harmful. Stress can be a significant motivating force in our daily lives. It is only when we begin to pass over that fine line that divides motivation from frustration that the techniques for releasing stress become important for overall health and well-being. Awareness of the role of stress in our daily lives, both as a tool and as a debilitating force, is the key. If we can reduce the destructive stress responses, then our overall health will be greatly benefited.
A great deal of our blockage with stressful situations is a direct result of our perspective. If we could step outside of the immediate situation and view it as an outsider, we could begin to reduce this stress. To what degree does your perception of limited time contribute to your stress response? Take a moment to reflect back and visualize a time when you felt stressed. Maybe you had an important appointment, and you were running late through no fault of your own. Then you found yourself locked in traffic with the clock ticking away. Your teeth clenched, your heart beat faster, maybe you were muttering to yourself, and your breathing was rapid and shallow. Yet a week later it was an event that you could hardly remember. This physiological reaction to the perception of stress is part of what is known as the fight-or-flight response of the body. But this response is not involuntary; we can alter it through our mental perspective on changes in our environment.
Through being aware of the role that time plays in producing a stress response as well as giving us perspective on situations in the past, we can begin the process of acceptance. To be able to say, yes, I am late for my appointment. Yes, I am unfortunately caught up in an awful traffic jam. And yes, this appointment is very important. However, I must accept that all these factors are beyond my control at the moment and in a week I will hardly remember this event, so let me witness the situation from that perspective now, and do my best with what is in my control rather than compounding it by my reaction. In addition to the psychological relief gained from this approach, the physiological effect can be dramatic as the body remains relaxed with no gnashing of teeth, no increase in blood pressure, no constriction of the chest and speeding up of the heartbeat, and no release of stress hormones such as cortisol.
Take a moment to recall a recent stress response that you have had. Clearly go through the details of the situation that you found yourself in and record them in your journal. How did the stress response manifest itself in your body? Make a list in your journal of the sensations you felt, such as rapid heartbeat, shallow and fast breathing, and any feelings you experienced, such as anger, resentment, frustration, helplessness. Now reflect on how the situation was resolved and recall the lessons that you learned.
Develop the habit of reflecting back on stressful moments in your life and recording your reaction in your journal. As you practice the techniques outlined in this chapter notice how your reactions change. Keep the format of your journal entries the same so that you can easily compare your stress response over time.
The following format may be useful:
Once we are outside the immediate situation that provoked the stress response, it seems far easier to be philosophical about the event, and oftentimes to see the positive results that came about because of it. The trick is to gain this perspective in the moment, and that requires us to develop the capacity to the body and the mind, and then to experience the peaceful nature within us that is often clouded by our reactions. Progressive deep relaxation is a technique that performs this educational role of giving us experience of the witness state, as well as allowing us to release tension and stress from the body and mind through coming in touch with our peaceful essence. As with the other components of HELP, the key is to practice it regularly.
The progressive deep relaxation technique is one of the physical practices of hatha yoga. It allows the body to heal and repair itself. It helps us to release stress, reduce anxiety, and remove mental blocks. It has a variety of applications in the area of psychology, helping to relieve insomnia, assisting the mind in absorbing new learning materials, and allowing the natural tendency of the body to heal to come forth without impediments.
It is based on the principle that a muscle will relax more profoundly when you tense it first. It begins with exaggerating any tension in the body through contraction of the muscles in different parts of the body, then relaxing both the exaggerated tension as well as any underlying tension that had been there to begin with.
The format of the progressive relaxation described here includes:
To prepare for this practice, find a quiet, comfortable location in which you will not be disturbed for at least 15 minutes. You may want to have a blanket nearby as the body temperature tends to drop as the body relaxes, and perhaps a cushion or two for comfort. Now lie down on your back. Scan the body first and adjust your clothing so that you feel completely comfortable. Feel free to place cushions either behind the head or underneath the back of the knees to release pressure on the lower back. Make whatever changes are necessary for you to feel at ease. Adjust your position so that your feet are roughly shoulder width apart. Your arms are slightly away from the body with the palms facing up. The head is in a comfortable position, and the eyes are gently closed. Start with a full deep inhalation followed by a slow relaxed exhalation.
Become aware of any sounds that you can hear and just identify the sound, let it go, and move on to the next. Not getting caught up in any one sound as you bring your awareness slowly within.
Next tune into your breathing and become aware of the rhythm of the breath. The sound of the breath as it enters and leaves the body. The rise and fall of the chest. Just allow the breathing to relax fully.
Now bring the awareness to the right leg and foot, stretching them out, tensing the muscles in the leg and foot, raising them slightly up off the floor, tensing the muscles tighter, then releasing. Allow the leg to come to a comfortable position and forget all about it as you now follow the same procedure for the left leg.
Now inhale deeply and contract the muscles of your buttocks, tensing the muscles tighter, as tight as you can, and then just release, allowing the . buttocks to sink into the floor.
Then bring the awareness to your abdominal area. Expand the abdomen out like a balloon as you take in a full deep breath, take in a little more air, a little more air, then hold onto the breath. Open the mouth and let the air come rushing out with a whooshing sound. Now do the same with the chest as you take in a deep breath, expanding out the chest, taking in a little more air, a little more air, then holding onto the breath. Open the mouth and let the air come rushing out, feeling the chest area free up and relax completely.
Now become aware of your right arm and hand. Stretch them out, splaying out the fingers, then make a fist as you tense the muscles of the hand and the arm, raising them slightly off the floor as you tense the muscles tighter, tighter, then release, allowing the arm and hand to relax. Find a comfortable position for the arm, uncurling the fingers, and feel the right arm let go as you repeat the process for the left arm.
Leaving your arms relaxed, bring your awareness to the shoulders as you tense the muscles around the shoulders, raising them up toward the ears, then down toward the feet, then trying to bring the shoulders together toward a point at the center of the chest, then letting go and releasing the shoulders, allowing them to relax down.
Gently roll your head from side to side, and as you do so relax all the muscles of the neck. Now find a comfortable position for the head and just allow it to rest there.
Become aware of the facial muscles by opening and closing the jaw a few times. Then purse the lips, wrinkle the nose, and squint the eyes. Finally, raise the eyebrows and furrow the forehead. Then just let the facial muscles relax.
Next make any adjustments to your position, cushions, blanket, or clothing, and make a commitment to remain still, as you scan the body mentally to release any subtle tension that may still remain. Begin by visualizing the toes of both feet and sending the signal for any tension to let go as you mentally free up the toes. Then work your way through the rest of the body: soles of the feet, heels, tops of the feet, ankles, shins, calf muscles, knees, thighs, buttocks, back region, abdomen, chest, hands, arms, shoulders, neck, and facial muscles. Just visualize and relax all these parts in turn.
Now bring the awareness back to the breath. Become aware of how peaceful and relaxed the breathing has become as you attune to the breath, and just witness the breathing.
Next become aware of the mind –any thoughts, images or ideas passing through the mind. Project them onto an imaginary screen. Now just let them pass from that screen, not getting caught up in the thoughts or images. A silent witness to the mind.
Now focus on the peace within. Become aware of how peaceful the body, the breath, and the mind have become. This peace is your true nature. Merge in with this peace, become one with this peace, feel the peace, and just enjoy it.
After a few minutes begin to deepen the breathing and feel the body being energized and refreshed with each deep breath. Begin to awaken the body slowly by gently moving the toes, the fingers, the legs, stretching out the arms, rolling the head, and taking time to tune into the physical body. Once you have stretched fully, slowly come back up to a seated position.
While deep relaxation is simple and straightforward, its benefits are profound. Practicing this technique leaves us feeling a sense of balance and peace. By learning to witness the body, the breath, and the mind, we cultivate the ability to bring this witness perspective into our everyday lives to reduce our stress reactions.
To witness does not mean to imply inaction or passivity. By maintaining our perspective on the big picture, we are free to be actively engaged with our environment.
We are able to put whatever events or changes we are experiencing around us into a mental framework that is not constrained by the events or changes themselves. We do this all the time with things our mind considers trivial; the key is to be able to do it in situations where we harbor attachment, desires, or a sense of self-consciousness while we might not notice or care if someone calls us by the wrong name, we might take exception to being called a derogatory name). The witness perspective will be heightened by meditative practice, as well as by other components of the HELP program.
It is possible to expand on the progressive deep relaxation by adding another component which is often referred to as imagery, or directed or creative visualization. This technique centers around the responses of the body to the images in the mind. We are all aware of this dynamic in daily life. When daydreaming of a pleasant holiday, for example, we feel the body begin to relax, the breath becoming deeper and more regular, and a sense of peace within. Or when recalling a particular conflict situation, we feel the heart speed up, the muscles tense, the breath become shallow, and the mind agitated. All these reactions are triggered just by recalling in images different scenes from life. Whether we visualize an erotic scene or imagine biting into a ripe juicy lemon, there is an accompanying physiological response, as the phenomenon of mind imagery is a powerful one.
How does this take place? The body and mind are connected by chemical messengers known as peptides. They respond to all the senses; whether the imagery involves sight, sound, touch, smell, or taste, these transmitters provide the linkage. Numerous medical studies have detailed the power of this interconnection.
The potential applications of guided imagery are unlimited. Not only are these techniques actively used in the healing field, but they have become extremely popular in sports and business, as individuals visualize upcoming challenges in as much detail as possible and then guide themselves through a successful fulfillment of those challenges. Whether it be closing a large sale, or jumping hurdles in record time at the Olympics, the success of guided imagery has led to it being actively taught in these fields as well as in many others.
You may wish to incorporate guided imagery into your progressive deep relaxation. When you have relaxed the body and are focusing on the peace is an appropriate time to introduce your imagery. The benefit of doing it at this stage is that the body, breath, and mind have been systematically relaxed and your internal awareness is heightened to respond to the images. Some people feel that introducing the imagery at this point brings them out of a relaxed state into a more actively alert frame of mind, and prefer to keep imagery separate from the relaxation. Some like to produce their own imagery, and others prefer to use a tape that will guide them through. The choice is yours, and you are encouraged to experiment with what works for you.
If you choose to use imagery outside of the deep relaxation context, then identify a time when you have a moment to just close the eyes, bring the awareness within, and let go of external distractions. While sitting or lying down in a comfortable position, just let go of sounds and sense stimuli. Scan the body to attune to it, then begin with a few deep full inhalations followed by slow relaxed and prolonged exhalations. This will allow you to let go into the imagery as much as possible.
Imagery techniques vary according to your goals, whether they be stress reduction, healing and repairing the body, improving performance, and so forth. There are several key ingredients common to all approaches, which tend to enhance the success of the imagery. These should be foremost in your mind when planning imagery, as they will allow the body to respond much more effectively:
The following imagery technique is effective for letting go of stress. You could have someone read it to you, make a tape of it, or use it as a guide when conducting your own imagery exercise.
Adjust yourself so that you are sitting or lying in a comfortable position. Go through the preliminary preparation detailed on page five for bringing the awareness within, or incorporate the guided imagery exercise into your progressive deep relaxation. Your goal is to let go and release stress. You know that this is possible and can be done at this moment.
Visualize yourself walking along the beach. Feel the sand moving with each footstep, the warmth of the sun as it caresses your skin. A gentle breeze cools and refreshes the body. Become aware of the sounds of the beach as you continue to walk along. The sound of the waves as they roll in and back out again. The sound of the seagulls as they call out to one another. Become aware of the fresh air and the accompanying scent of the sea as you breathe deeply into the lungs, as you can taste the salt in the sea air. Become aware of all the colors around you and feel them soothe and relax your entire being. The blue of the sky. The white wisps of cloud. The blue and green of the sea. The yellow of the sun.
You are completely in the moment with each step you take along the sand. No thoughts of the past. No expectations of the future. Just being with each breath and with each step in the moment. The body feels peaceful and relaxed. The mind still and calm. You are filled with a spirit of joy as you feel at one with nature, interconnected and whole.
As you continue to walk along the beach you come to a dune and walk to the top of it, where you sit down and gaze out to sea. Despite the activity on the shoreline there is a peace and tranquillity out at sea. The waves on the beach are like the breath. Rising and falling in an endless cycle. But beyond them, deep in the sea, is a deep reservoir of peace, just like there is within you. Dive deep into this reservoir of peace and joy, and feel it completely soothe and relax the body and mind. Know that this peaceful state is your true nature. Attune to it, and come to know it. Realize that this peace is always with you no matter where you go. Take time to come in contact with it, and allow it to flow throughout your entire being.
Feel any concerns you might have being washed away with the waves, and feel renewed energy flow into the body with the rays of sunshine. Feel the body being restored and rejuvenated by nature. Attune the breath with the waves flowing in and flowing out as you become one with the rhythm. Feel the consciousness of the physical body begin to drop away, like a set of clothes falling off, leaving you with a sense of being connected with all of nature. At one with the sand, the water, the sky. Feeling whole, nourished, and sustained by the forces of nature.
As you sit atop the dune the sun slowly begins to set, sending an array of colors blazing across the sky, with orange and red reflected both in the sky and in the water below. The sun seems to disappear into the water. The bright red ball descends out of view and leaves behind a magnificent masterpiece of hues. You are filled with a sense of joy at nature’s beauty. You feel alive, vital, and renewed.
You make a commitment to yourself to take time out from your daily schedule to attune to this spirit of peace and joy within. To nurture it and share it with all you meet. Allowing this peace and joy to spread throughout the universe to everyone and everything.
As you descend from the dune, following your footprints in the sand, you feel lightness throughout your entire being. You see a lone seagull soaring high above the water, framed by the beautiful colors of the sky. How effortlessly it glides on the air currents. You too feel this sense of soaring and gliding. Not being carried forth by your feet or legs, but by that spirit of peace and joy within you. Allow that spirit to stay with your awareness wherever you go and whatever is happening around you.
Begin to deepen the breath once again. Send the energy of the breath throughout the entire body as you become aware of how refreshed and peaceful the body, breath, and mind have become. Once you have attuned back to your position, slowly open your eyes.
Another tool for transforming our lives is that of positive affirmations, or statements that we design to assist us in developing new ways of enjoying life and achieving our goals. Every thought we have carries with it a chemical reaction in the body that can influence the functioning of body and mind. A clear and positive statement regarding each of our goals can precipitate a physiological and psychological reaction, which can in turn align both the body and mind with the achievement of that goal. Medical research is now confirming the benefits of optimism, faith, and positive thinking for the body. Similar guidelines apply with regard to affirmations as to imagery:
An example of a positive affirmation for stress release could be: “Each day I am able to react to changes and people around me in a more peaceful and relaxed way.” Whenever you can, remind yourself of the affirmation. Write it down numerous times. Share it with others to help you maintain your focus. If you feel it is appropriate, hang it up in your room, place it on your desk, in your wallet, in your car, or anywhere that will allow you to keep your focus upon it.
The use of healing words or prayer is an excellent way to deal with changes around us that seem beyond our control. For of years prayer has been used as a tool in the healing process. Modem medicine has run scientific tests on the healing power of prayer and the results confirm its effectiveness. Dr Larry Dossey (1993) has compiled an in-depth analysis of research on prayer over the years, and concludes that not only is prayer an effective healing modality but also healing words can be transmitted over huge distances without diminishing their power.
When accounting for how prayer and spiritual practices possibly work to influence health in a local setting, Dossey puts forth many explanations, including the following:
The debate between different organizations may always go on as to how to pray, but the research cited in the Dossey volume indicates that directed prayer for a specific well-defined outcome, and non- directed prayer such as “Thy will be done,” are both effective.
The techniques described above are powerful tools for healing the body and mind. Another approach is to tune in or become more receptive to what is happening within us that may account for our current state of health and well-being. Receptive imagery is based on the theory that there is an inner intelligence within us that we may be overriding. Using receptive imagery, we can tap into this information, which has been stored in the unconscious mind or perhaps simply ignored in the haste of everyday life.
This technique can be used in conjunction with the progressive deep relaxation to allow us to become more precise in targeting our imagery. It is a simple technique that again requires you to locate yourself in comfortable and quiet surroundings, where you can begin to bring your awareness within. As with the previous techniques, you may want to incorporate it at the end of your progressive deep relaxation session or meditation. It can also be practiced on its own. In the example of stress management, the following approach may be taken. But remember that receptive imagery is equally applicable to all areas of life and health.
Begin by focusing on the particular area of the body or a particular behavior, which attracts stressful reactions. It may be anger or hostility that is accompanied by a raising of the voice and a loss of temper. Use the questions as examples of ways to be receptive to what may be behind your stress. Your answers to the questions will certainly take you into other areas besides those questions listed here, so use these only as a guide:
Upon completing this receptive imagery technique, write down your experience in your journal and use the information in the other components of this program to help transform yourself. For example, you may become aware of certain feelings and events which have colored the way you are perceiving things and which can be changed in order to experience greater ease. This approach is called reframing, and it is something that we are all capable of doing.
Through the process of receptive imagery, you may have discovered that you feel you are not good enough in comparison with others. When you reflect on your lifestyle, you may find that you are constantly overindulging in food, work, alcohol, or television as a way to shut out this feeling. Once you have found the source of the problem (in this example, a lack of self-esteem), you can begin to reframe the situation.
Reframing is the ability to look at life from a different perspective. It allows us to change our way of viewing the world and hence our behavior. It is as if we change the glasses we are looking through. If a particular experiment does not work out the way we intended, rather than viewing it as a failure, we give ourselves the credit for trying. The most common illustration of two different perspectives is the glass filled to midway: is it half full or half empty? If you change your perspective, you may find that symptoms previously associated with low self-esteem, such as stress and overeating, disappear of their own accord.
To reframe use the HELP tools detailed in this book, and remember the importance of the stress-reduction techniques from this chapter:
And, as with all HELP components, remember to be aware of the integrated nature of the HELP program and the need to dedicate yourself to all of its components.
Obviously, the more you practice these techniques, the greater the benefit you will receive. Some of them, such as positive affirmations, are not time-consuming but require frequent reminders. Other techniques, such as the guided imagery and receptive imagery, can be incorporated as part of your daily progressive deep relaxation. The deep relaxation can be practiced immediately after the yoga postures (see Chapter 3) for 15 minutes or more. Whenever it is possible to access these techniques at other times of the day, try to remember their importance and do them.
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Booth, Audrey Livingston. Stressmanship, Severn House, London, 1985.
Dossey, Larry. Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine, Harper Collins, New York, 1993.
Gawain, Shakti. Creative Visualization, Bantam Books, New York, 1979.
Nuemberger, Phil. Freedom from Stress: A Wholistic Approach, Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science, Honesdale, PA, 1981.
Pelletier, Kenneth R. Mind as Healer, Mind as Slayer, Delta, New York, 1977.
Selye, Hans. The Stress of Life, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1976.